There was a time when swearing was taboo in polite society. Those who swore were considered gauche. But swearing is much more common now in films and all manner of media and so I was interested in this article that discussed whether it was now accepted in ordinary conversation. The article says that what constitutes a swear word has also changed over time.
It was reported last week that an employment judge, presiding over a case of unfair dismissal and discrimination, had decided that using the phrase “I don’t give a fuck” in a “tense” meeting was not necessarily significant. “The words allegedly used in our view are fairly commonplace and do not carry the shock value they might have done in another time,” said the judge.
Swearing is everywhere. It is on TV, on social media, in music. Young children use “WTF” and “OMG”. For many of us, workplace swearing seems so normal that it doesn’t even stand out any more (this was one theory, in that employment tribunal, as to why others in that meeting couldn’t remember if that particular swearword was used).
A 2021 survey for the British Board of Film Classification found that three-fifths of people said strong language was part of their daily lives, while one-third used such language more than they did five years ago. A 2020 report by Ofcom, the TV and radio regulator, found that swearing-related complaints had halved in five years; a year later, swearing accounted for only 1% of complaints, reflecting a “trend of increasingly relaxed attitudes about the use of swearwords” (this did not include slurs and discriminatory language).
Has swearing finally lost its power? Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and a swearing expert, sighs. “I’ve been answering that question for 50 years,” he says. “The offensiveness of any word is entirely dependent upon context. All of us carry the calculus for who, what, where and when. If I went in my dean’s office, I wouldn’t swear in there; a student wouldn’t swear in there, but they would swear in a dorm room or a bar.”
A huge number of racist, homophobic, ableist and misogynistic terms are used regularly online – and the words change, says [Emma] Byrne, to evade filters and hate speech laws. “The bodily functions unite us – there’s something about ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ that we can relate to on one level or another. I’m very concerned as to what’s left if those words are no longer considered taboo. Slurs are used as weapons in a way that ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ never were.”
More encouraging is the emergence of a nuanced approach in professional life, she says. “I think workplaces are becoming more aware of the distinction between swearing and abuse. You can be swearing with your colleagues about ‘how fucking stressful this quarter’s been’, or you can consistently undermine and belittle someone and never use a swearword at all. One of those I would say is OK and the other is not. Taking our focus off swearing and putting it more on bullying and abuse is something to be welcomed.”
While I am not disapproving or offended when others use swear words in my presence, I am somewhat old school in that my own swearing is relatively mild by today’s standards. I do use ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ as swear words, not routinely but occasionally, just for effect and emphasis. I do not use ‘bloody’ as a swear word, as is commonly done in Sri Lanka and the UK. I will say ‘Oh my God!’ to express surprise or dismay or sorrow but not ‘Jesus Christ!’, which seems to be used more as an expression of anger or frustration. When I am shocked or upset by something, I will occasionally say ‘Oh shit!” but only when talking with very close friends. I do not use the f-word or the c-word or the b-word unless I really need to directly quote someone else who used them, such as earlier in this post.
I think my reluctance to swear more freely is probably due to my childhood. People swore quite freely in Sri Lanka which had its own suite of swear words and though my parents were tolerant people, it would never occur to me to swear in front of them, or any other adult for that matter, because it would be a sign of disrespect.
What I have been surprised by is that in the UK (at least going by some TV programs that I have seen) the c-word is used routinely as a term to describe someone whom the speaker disapproves of and wants to disparage. That and the b-word are also sexist and to be particularly avoided in my view, along with any swear word that is disparaging of gender, race, or ethnicity.
Marcus Ranum says
Marcus Ranum says
I think it always was, actually. People used substitution hacks to swear without swearing. “Cheez” is, of course, a replacement for blasphemy “Jesus!” “Shoot!” for “Shit!” etc. And the nonsense of crossing out a few letters because people are too f*cking stupid to figure out what I meant…? Our brains automatically repair errors like “the S-word” on the fly, or mine does.
Reminds me of the story Hitchens used to tell about how a delegation of old ladies congratulated Samuel Johnson for “leaving out all of the nasty words” and Johnson said “congratulations for knowing what words to look for.”
Matt G says
I used to moonlight as a volleyball ref in an adult recreational league. One woman messed up on a play, and stomped her foot and said “oh, sugar!” Her teammate said “hey, watch your language!” She said “but I said sugar!” The teammate replied “we know what you meant.”
chigau (違う) says
Or calling someone a “berk”, you are still calling them a c*nt but with a different spelling.
My work place used to open up to the machine shop and the mechanics working there had quite a vocabulary of swear words. Meh. After a while, I hardly heard them. Chalked it up to “shop talk.”
@1 Or, as we would say in high school (thank you, I think it was, Black Sabbath) “Fred, Yes!”
There was a fad in the book publishing world a couple of years ago to put f*ck or sh*t in book titles to attract attention by artificially generating controversy. Naturally, after one has seen this trick a few times it quickly becomes boring. I don’t think I have seen it used since about mid-2021.
John Oliver drops f-bombs all the time. He seems to think it is a part of his brand, but I find it quite tiresome and I wonder if at some point his bosses are going to tell him to tone it down.
steve oberski says
In Quebec there is a sub-genre of profanity referred to as sacres, such as tabernak, calice, ciboire, sacrament etc. all seeming referencing formerly “sacred” Catholic rituals and devices.
#4, usage has changed to something like fool or prat.
Trickster Goddess says
I make up my own swear words to use when frustrated. Basically just nonsense syllables with hard consonants. Kind of like swearing in tongues. The only people who might object are certain fringe types of Christians.
For milder disappointments I occasionally use “Scheisse” (German for “shit”), a habit I picked up from my ex.
Fuck is from fek, which is a Germanic verb for marry. It was considered low class vernacular by various priests and invading Normans.
I will take offense at people who use profanity around children as I don’t want to hear babies using fuck or shit. I try not to use them around my Mother, but otherwise meh.
English profanity lacks the sheer disgust one can convey in other languages by changing the tone and pronunciation of common words.
I never used to swear, until I was production manager at a newspaper. I discovered that telling the editor we needed to speed things up or we would not meet deadline, did not work. He simply ignored me. However if I came in and said “OMG JFC GD!” he would pay attention. Weird. So, I learned to swear.
I must admit, it’s a useful way to blow off steam. Glad to hear the standards are changing more to being against hate speech and putting others down.
I like Mork’s “Shazbat!”
John Morales says
Just checking… you mean ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’ and ‘bitch’, right?
(Not ‘faggot’, ‘cock’ or ‘bastard’, for example)
Me, I’ll use any word that’s appropriate for the context at hand, but the point of expletives and vulgarisms (what are collectivelly known as ‘swear words’) is to have some sort of verbal impact and mindless repetition weakens that.
Thus, the “F-bomb”.
I’m very relaxed about hearing pretty much any non-gendered profanity used to express emphasis in any setting where all present are relaxed about it.
Extra respect for using an innocuous word in a way that conveys the full emphasis of a heartfelt profanity.
(Not you, Ding Dang Johnson: that weak effort does not count… and you were smirking as you said it anyway.)
Lalochezia is the practice or act of relieving stress by uttering profanity. Since there is a word for it, it must be OK.
John Morales says
ardipithecus, huh. I didn’t know that.
Jörg, I like Red Dwarf’s ‘smeg’.
(It’s derivation is pretty obvious)
Dago Red says
For me, its what emotion is being expressed that can be the real problem. When one swears angrily at someone else, for example, its the anger I often find inappropriate rather than the language choices made. If a person generally swears as part of their own vernacular, I rarely, if ever, even notice it.
I wholeheartedly agree with the line in the film, “Inherit the Wind”, where Henry Drummond was told he can’t say “damn” on the radio. He replied, “I don’t swear for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. We’ve got to use all the words we’ve got.”
WMDKitty -- Survivor says
Meh. If you don’t like swearing, don’t do it. Just don’t go about telling me and others that we can’t do an absolutely harmless thing because you dislike it or find it distasteful. Beyond that? Zero. fucks. given.
@ 19 WMDKitty
Unlike WMDKitty, Morales @ 14, of course, is like the kid that’s been told the host doesn’t like chewing with the mouth full and immediately ostentatiously chews with an open mouth, spitting out food as they mumble, “you mean like this?!”. Pathetic trolls gotta troll.
I feel like an old man sometimes, and one reason is the seeming relaxation of rules around swearwords since I was young. When I was a kid “fart” was a swearword. Now it’s taught to kids of preschool age by videos and books intended for them. “Shit” gets used WAY more frequently than I would have been comfortable with as a kid.
One particularly egregious example is use of the word “fuck” in certificate 12 films. You’re allowed to use it precisely once. This led, a few years back, to the ludicrous state of there being, in my experience, three kinds of film -- ones with no swearing, ones with copious swearing, and ones with PRECISELY ONE use of the word “fuck”. It got so that I was sitting there in the cinema wondering when it would turn up, and thinking “oh, there it is” and relaxing once we were past it.
I vaguely remember when I was a kid having it pointed out to me that nobody swears, even slightly, in Star Wars. It seemed odd. IIRC, the nearest you get is Han Solo saying “then I’ll see you in Hell”, which raises all sorts of theological questions.
While this is NOT an example, being just an observation, it always amuses me when self-righteous cultural colonialist Americans just can’t accept that a word they hate simply isn’t as offensive in other cultures as they insist it must be. There seems a definite sense among that sort of person that English belongs to them, and not to the, er… English, and that English people’s usage should bend to their (foreign) sensibilities. Cunts.
All that said: while anyone not inclined to ignore evidence can see that *demonstrably* the c-word is definitely not as offensive in the UK (or Australia) as it apparently is in the USA, notwithstanding that it still is definitely right at the very top of the hierarchy of offensive swearwords in any survey of such.
Where the difference is most oddly noticeable is in films. In movies coming out of America, “fuck” and “motherfucker” get tossed around with gay abandon in the works of Quentin Tarantino and many others, but in milieus where such profanity is coming thick and fast, the occurrence of the c-word is still so rare as to be almost non-existent. A case in point is the South Park movie, which features a whole song about how “‘fuck’ is the worst word that you can say, you mustn’t say ‘fuck’, fuck no!”, and the whole time that song was on I thinking “but… what about c**t?” I really did think the punchline to the whole song was going to be someone dropping the c-bomb… but it never came. Odd.
I wonder if it’s because people swear in films to indicate that they’re cool, and Americans just sound silly when they say the c-word. There’s something about the accent that makes it come across as juvenile rather than shocking, like a toddler not quite pronouncing a swear word correctly. See also when an American attempts to say the word “bollocks” -- it just sounds a little bit pitiful, rather than (as is presumably intended) vehement. On the flip side, English people saying “motherfucker” just sound like 12-year-olds trying to sound hard. Sorry mate, you sound closer to Samuel Johnson than Samuel L. Jackson.
John Morales says
Bad analogy and quote mining.
The actual quotation:
“While I am not disapproving or offended when others use swear words in my presence, I am somewhat old school in that my own swearing is relatively mild by today’s standards.”
I am not old-school.
Well, yes, you apparently do.
(How’s it working for you?)
It’s even more complex than that… In certain social contexts (for example working-class Scots, particularly younger, urban ones) it can have multiple different meanings, some of which are very offensive, and others which are not, and the difference hangs on some very subtle nuances of context, pronunciation, and delivery. Mastery of those differences is often a shibboleth for the communities in question, and outsiders absolutely should not attempt to join in.
As I used to tell my students, my “problem” with swear words (especially variations on fuck) is that it’s lazy speech. What does it add if a word can be used pretty much anywhere at any time? For example, “The fucking tires on my fucking car are fucking bald.” You can’t even assume that the person saying this is particularly upset because I’ve heard people say things like this in a very even, relaxed tone. It’s just filler. In this context, the word has no shock value and does not convey emotion, but only serves as an adjective with nil descriptive power. Pointless.
I recall on the TV series “Battlestar Galactica”, people used the word “frack” as a direct replacement for “fuck”, as in “Here come the fracking Ceylons!”. It was obvious what was going on, but it was also obvious how meaningless the word was. It was a meaningless word used to replace another meaningless word that is considered “bad”.
Having said all that, I would never use a swear word in a professional context or with people I do not know. Of course, there are people whose standards on what constitutes swearing might be much more broad than mine, so…
@jimf: Famous chemical engineering example, maintenance engineer referring to cooling water circulation pump: “The fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.” I had a good mate I used to flying with, ex-Army chap, whose conversation was so liberally peppered with f’s that I don’t think even he realised how much he did it. As a result, he had no way of emphasising anything. “Shall we fuck off? This fucking hill’s not gonna fucking climb itsfuckinself.” On one level it was fascinating. As there, sometimes he’d even insert it into the middle of other words. I would entertain myself trying to work out what linguistic rules were at play -- what words can you enfuckerate? Must it always come after a consonant? Or before one? What’s the shortest word you can do it to? Are there any words you can do it to twice? And so on.
I’ve often made the point to people in discussions of swearing that there’s a scientific, self-interested reason for keeping it to a minimum. Swearing has a proven pain-killing effect… BUT only if you generally don’t swear much. My old flying buddy would be unable to conjour the pain-killing effect of a loud shout of “FUCK!” on hitting his thumb with a hammer, for instance, whereas someone like me, who says the word out loud a single digit number of times a week would almost certainly feel the benefit.
“You can’t say that any more Starbuck! They’re called Sri Lankas now, didn’t you get the frackin memo?”
Your colleague must know a friend of mine. I recall when he couldn’t get a particular item to work properly, he said “Fuck the fucking fucker. The fucking fucker’s fucked.”
That’s a total of eight words: two “the”, and the rest variations on “fuck”. But at least there was emphasis and the frustration in his voice was obvious. It became a sort of in-joke for the group of us to say when something went awry.
BTW, not being a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica, it only just occurred to me to look up the spelling of their nemesis. Turns out, no “e”. My oops.
And I should add, there was the whole “insert into middle of word” thing, too. At the end of the day you might hear “I’m fucking exhausted” or “I’m ex-fucking-sausted ” (with emphasis). I should stop now or I might get aggrafuckingvated at myself.
Pierce R. Butler says
Somewhere (Oliver Sachs?) I read that when human brains get damaged, the last component of speech to go is swearing -- something I’ve longed to whack an intelligent-design proponentsist with for years (or maybe a hardcore adaptationist).
With slightly less injury, according to the same source, people also retain the ability to sing. Something very archetypal about human existence there.
Mano Singham says
Ceylon is the name Sri Lanka had before it changed its name to Sri Lanka when it became a republic in 1972 removing the UK monarch as its head of state. But the people were known as ‘Ceylonese’ then, not ‘Ceylons’, so presumably they were not the ones who appeared in Battlestar Galactica. Or maybe the character who said that did not know how the people of Ceylon were referred to.
Pierce R. Butler @28: Swearing may also be the evolutionary oldest aspect of speech. It turns out that warning calls and signals of vervet monkeys (for instance) are produced inthe part of the brain that is equivalent to the area that in humans produces swearing. (So they aren’t saying ‘Eagle!’ they are saying ‘Damn eagle!’).
Mano, sorry for the confusion. The “Cylons” were robots who wanted to kill all humans. I was not a huge fan of the show and didn’t know until today that they spelled it without the “e”, even though the pronunciation is the same. The show was redone some years later, and although the effects were much better, it still made use of the word “frack” like the original. Hoping for better, I streamed the first couple of seasons and finally gave up as I couldn’t find a single redeemable character in the show (and began hating the show’s writers). Toward the end I found myself being more sympathetic toward the Cylons. Among other things, I do not recall them making regular use of the word “frack”.
Nah, depends on who you ask. In the rougher/poorer areas it’s just another word, and can even be used positively.
Misquoting to change the meaning of what was said -- sbob’s favourite trick. Nice example, but it will never beat the time he quoted the same study I had already cited back at me, stopping one sentence short of the passage that refuted his entire point.
I use swear words for emphasis, and I self-regulate for two reasons:
1) if the swear word is legitimately offensive to some people. Legitimately offensive, to me, means it that capitalizes on something people have no control over, due to being born a certain way, place, or having grown up a certain way. This rules out words like b--, any racist word, homophobic words, etc.
2) I’m at work and I feel the use of the word would cause someone else to even think about the fact that I used the word at work. Swear words are never necessary, they just feel good to use, and I would never jeopardize my employment for that.
The c-word is interesting and difficult. Its use is (and should be) regulated by women, but some women find it hilarious and others find it repulsive. I’ve made the mistake of letting it get normalized by hanging out with a lot of the former, and then using it while encountering the latter, and I definitely regretted that incident and haven’t used it around strangers since.
Good grief. Do you even statistics? It does not “depend on who you ask”. Statistically, provably, it is accepted that off all the words in English, that one is, definitively, the one most people find most offensive. That incontrovertible fact isn’t in any way disproven by the fact that some people may liberally pepper their conversation with it or find it less offensive than the vast majority. Even those people know what most other people think of it, they just don’t care.
I wonder if you understood what I said. You quoted the words, but seemed to ignore the point that offensiveness is a regional and cultural thing. As you pointed out to Mano, it really doesn’t matter what a survey finds regarding what the bulk of people in one place think to the people of some other region.
Also, not all polls. Many name ‘nigger’ as the worst.
Perfectly well. I, on the other hand, do not wonder if you understood what I said.
All rise please and salute, Captain Obvious on deck. That’s what everyone was agreeing on -- the fact there’s a distinction between, on the one hand, the culture in shrinking-snowflake-you-can’t-ever-use-the-c-word USA, and the more robust UK. Popping up and saying that there are regional/cultural variations within the UK, and “not all polls”, and using the n-word in full for absolutely no justifiable reason just make you look a bit desperate.
If it makes you feel happy: yes, you’re right, there are regional variations in the UK. And you used the n word, you’re ever so cool and edgy. Well done you.
Ahem, you said “in any survey”; apparently you meant “in the UK” without saying so. Funny of you to seemingly take this as assumed, given your chiding of Americans for their ‘America is the anglosphere’ attitude.
As for the words we used, I’d like to remind you of your own words: “There seems a definite sense among that sort of person that English belongs to them, and not to the, er… English, and that English people’s usage should bend to their (foreign) sensibilities. Cunts.” Isn’t it your position that that word is the most offensive? Edgelord.
jimf beat me to it:
I have no problem with any word: I’m a geek and I like words; but I object very strongly to overuse of swear words because that makes them meaningless. Unfortunately, there are some just don’t know how to express themselves strongly in any other way, or who simply can’t be bothered to do so, likely a combination of both.
Hey Mano, I think you hit on a winner here. 39 comments so far. I guess even if people don’t like to swear, they do like talking about swearing.
It seems we have uncovered “meta-swearing”.
I’m in England and we’re talking about English. It really should go without saying, but if you needed the subtitles for the hard of thinking then apologies, I shall try not to overestimate you again.
You’re really not paying attention, are you? Let’s look at the evidence, since I can’t risk overestimating your intelligence again.
1. I pointed out that in surveys IN THE UK, consistently the word “cunt” is held up as the most offensive.
2. I personally used the word “cunt”, unasterisked, in a joke.
3. When presented with someone using the n-word, unasterisked, I called them on it, but did not repeat it even for the purposes of quoting them.
Now: fully mentally competent adults can infer a few things from those facts.
1. I’m perfectly aware that the as a population, the people in this country consider the word “cunt” to be, of all words, the one most likely to cause offence.
2. I don’t personally find the word that offensive and am prepared, in the right context, to use it.
3. There are other words which I personally deem more offensive, that I won’t use.
And you named the UK, Australia and USA in the sentence I quoted, and stated “in any survey” without further specification. Syntactically unclear which you were referring to, and given your recent chiding of Mano for speaking provincially, it seemed uncharitable to assume such self-blindness that you would then speak just as provincially. My bad.
-- Sure, aside from the UK bit being assumed rather than specified --
That’s right, that’s the crux of it, gold star. You used, rather than mentioned, the word you had just identified as the most offensive of them all -- specifically as an insult. (You have also mentioned it several times, as have I thanks to quoting you.) I mentioned another potential most offensive word, but did not use it at all. It may pay for you to read this wiki page on the difference between using and mentioning.
If I am ‘edgy’ for mentioning an offensive word, what are you for mentioning and using the world’s leading contender for offensiveness?
It would have been more efficient to just say “No.”
Fine, avoid the point, no reason to continue talking to someone with their hands over their ears.
Lol I was just listening to Creative Source -- Who Is He And What Is He To You, on YouTube. “ “Dadgummit! Who is he and what is he to you?” is the chorus . A cool song I used to disco dance to.
My late father was a sailor and he used to swear like one too. I try not to but ….